PRINT May 1989

What in the World

The Art of Perestroika Part II

THE FIRST CHANGE WROUGHT BY perestroika in the lives of Soviet artists was an expansion of the audience for their work. That audience has come to include an apparently endless influx of Western critics, curators, gallery dealers, and collectors eager to examine, criticize, and respond to work originally intended to transmit coded communications. But, whereas it was comparatively easy for artists to negotiate the situation on their home turf, it is virtually impossible for them to sustain that dialectic now that they are traveling to countries in which secrecy itself is not a priority, in which multiple meanings, rather than being buried in a system of ciphers, surface as visible layering or as invitations to penetration.

But if, when Soviet art entered the Western market, its communicative language was undermined—and with that the urgency behind its production — perhaps its new locus of meaning is precisely in experiences of exile, transit, encounters with the artistic diaspora, and disjunction in relation to one’s homeland. In the past several months, almost all of the important Soviet artists (among them Ilya Kabakov, Dmitri Prigov, Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky, Sven Gundlakh, Sergei Volkov, Erik Bulatov, the Leningrad New Painters, Kostia Schwedeschotov, Afrika [Sergei Bulgaev], Vadim Zakharov, Timur Novikov, Irina Nakhova, and Sergei Kuryakhin and Popular Mechanics) have visited major Western European and American cities, some briefly, some for extended stays. There have been a number of exhibitions in the recent past for which Soviet artists have been imported for an opening, for a week of tourism, for a moment with the press, all of which have tended to have about them the embarrassing air of fiasco. These have been esthetic shock treatments, occasions for the artists to identify their own distance from what rapidly became a hypercritical public. The crude insistence that the artists stand in for or function as emblems of their nation and history can seem like a devaluation of the work. In these situations, the artists could do nothing more than retreat behind an ideal of “beauty” for their own protection.

But all this recent travel back and forth has placed Soviet artists in a curious position in relation to their Western audience, a position similar to that of the postcolonial intellectual in the West: no longer able to regard Westerners as interlopers (although some still do), yet unable to identify with them because of cultural differences. The tension created by this conflict has become the subtext of much recent Soviet art. And of the many exhibitions of this work in the West over the past several months, one organized at the Bahnhof Westend in West Berlin addressed the problem head-on. The exhibition was the result of long-term collaborations between West German and Soviet artists invited to West Berlin for the project. The German work sustained an internal coherence with the Soviet work, without attempting to programatize the Western response to it. Some Soviet artists reproduced Moscow works; others exploited the freedom granted by easily accessible supplies and large studios; and still others—perhaps the least successful—directly addressed the Western audience. Although the result was work of mixed caliber, the idea that, at least for the moment, Soviet art shown in the West should be produced in the West, and should be displayed contextually with the work of Western artists closely acquainted with Soviet life, turned the problem of travel into a structuring insight.

For what empowers the work of these artists is their strongly-held belief in what they must say, in what they can say, and that what they can say will be comprehensible. In pre-glasnost days, all three of these categories were clearly defined. But the Western tendency to take literally scenarios originally designed in the Soviet context as evasions has become an obstacle in creating work that is to be seen primarily by Westerners. Typical responses have fluctuated between a self-negating acknowledgment of the Western reading of a work (a counterintuitive generosity extended to an audience that does not understand) and a misplaced confidence that the West will ultimately recognize its own ignorance (which relieves the artist of the responsibility to make his or her work resonate in a different context). The self-doubt of the first assumption erodes meaning to the same degree as the affected arrogance of the second one. In neither instance is there even a modicum of belief that what is important to say has been or indeed can be said. The pointlessness of this work recalls the nearly forgotten Socialist Realists, most of whom are still in Moscow and whose phenomenal obviousness was meant to promote, not impede, art’s educatory or even inspiring function.

But, in fact, these artists of the vanguard at least recognize that neither self-abnegation nor arrogance constitute effective responses to the problematics of exhibiting in the West. And as the Western cultural scene becomes more familiar to Soviet artists, that problem is exacerbated on both conscious and subliminal levels. The best works by Soviets in the West are those that have been produced after considerable migration between the two contexts: works that communicate the discomfort of disjunction, works that recognize their own limitations and turn that recognition into a compelling subject. The best of these works begin with the ecstasy of novelty and depend on the certain knowledge that the West can understand, if not the acts of communication themselves, at least the will to communicate.

But Soviet artists are not so enthralled by the novel and new as to be beyond nostalgia. That they look forward to a brave new world does not mean that they do not also reflect back. In “Questions of Travel,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote, “Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where would we be today?” These works of art, at their best, are responses to that very question. They are in part about the realization of an impossible dream of travel, a fantasy too long deferred to be recognizable when it is finally realized, and which thus, like all fantasies, loses not only its familiarity but also much of its charm. What is the difference between the place imagined and the place discovered? The poetics of meaning for these Soviet artists lies in their nostalgia; it is perhaps a greater mercy than they know that one of their cultural attributes is a tendency toward homesickness. It is when they are able, in their work, to think of the long trip home, to recognize that a dream realized is in the end a dream forsaken, that they are able to resuscitate both their purity of purpose—the much-vaunted urgency of communication—and the sense of humor that we find so very moving. In rediscovering their country from the standpoint of distance, Soviet artists rediscover their original reasons for telling, secretly or otherwise, what have seemed to them to be inalienable truths, even in alien territory.

Andrew Solomon is a New York writer who currently lives in London. He is a contributing editor of Harpers & Queen.